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Dungannon judge describes revenge porn as ‘cruel, controlling and cowardly’ as victim considered leaving country

Minister for Justice Naomi Long MLA has acknowledged the “abhorrent crime” of revenge pornography and has asked officials to look into the possibility of having victims granted automatic anonymity, as would be applied in sexual related offending.

Concerns have been raised around the seriousness of the offence and why it is not treated as a sexually related crime, therefore affording victims automatic lifetime anonymity.

Revenge pornography is a specific offence of disclosing private sexual photos and films with intent to cause distress. This was introduced in Northern Ireland under section 51 of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2016.

Last week a judge dealing with such a case in Dungannon Magistrates’ Court described revenge pornography: “Cruel, vicious, controlling, cowardly and devoid of compassion for victims.”

District Judge Michael Ranaghan has spoken out on numerous occasions deeming such cases too serious for the lower courts and calling for someone with “more judicial gravitas” to review the matter.

He has sent a number of cases back to the PPS for reconsideration toward sending them on to Crown Court.

In all instances, this was refused.

During the most recent case Judge Ranaghan noted the victim begged the offender not to do what he ultimately did and the impact has been significant. She has isolated herself, remains anxious and is unable to sleep. She had to change job and considered leaving the country.

Judge Ranaghan commented: “To quote her directly, ‘I felt worthless. I could not do anything’. Effectively the defendant was showing the power he had over her … The court has to apply sufficient weight and focus on deterrents to stop this all too widespread behaviour.”

On top of this, the Judge was required to order the victim’s name was not disclosed, which would not have been required if the crime was encapsulated within existing sexual offending law.

Following on from the judge’s remarks a number of enquiries were made with the Lord Chief Justice and the Minister for Justice.

It was submitted while all victims of sexual crimes have automatic anonymity, revenge porn does not qualify, despite details of these cases clearly contain a sexual aspect. There is also the mental distress of privacy violation and it was unduly severe to then go through a court process where identity may be disclosed.

With these cases becoming more and more frequent, and the obvious distress caused by court proceedings for victims, consideration was sought for alignment with sexual crime anonymity.

It was suggested this may also give comfort to encourage more victims to report these instances.

The position of the Lord Chief Justice was that for revenge pornography victims to qualify for anonymity, it would require a change in the existing legislation. This is for the Department of Justice and perhaps ultimately the passing of the required amendment to the legislation.

However the Justice Minister Naomi said: “I am conscious of the particular distress and hurt that victims of this abhorrent crime face. This offence is not specified as a sexual offence in law. This is because the offence itself involves the disclosure of material relating to a consensual act, as opposed to committal of a non-consensual sexual act. A similar approach to the offence and its legislative framework has been adopted across neighbouring jurisdictions.”

She continued reporting restrictions for those giving oral evidence are available to the courts, some of which apply automatically. Some are applied at the discretion of the court, having taken full account of all the circumstances. There are also a range of other special measures which can be provided to assist victims or witnesses where they are considered particularly vulnerable or intimidated by proceedings.

In applying the law, courts can exercise their discretion to ensure that a proportionate balance can be achieved in satisfying the principle of open justice and the meeting of human rightsrequirements, whilst protecting the interests of victims and witnesses in criminal proceedings.

The Minister concluded: “All this being said, I am concerned that this offence appears to be becoming more common and, given its circumstances, victims may be discouraged from coming forward where they fear that friends or work colleagues would come to hear of their case. Noting this, I have asked my officials to look into this as part of their wider work on reviewing revenge pornography related issues.”

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